Artificial Continuum

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Despite a mediocre season opener and a two week break, The Clone Wars is back with a bang and violent vengeance. The much hyped four part Umbara saga has arrived, and with it delivering one of the most shocking, violent, and downright satisfying episodes of the show we have seen in months.

The shadowy world of Umbara has left the Republic, for reasons largely unknown. (There have been some rumblings that this is related to the death of their representative in “Senate Murders”, but there has been no confirmation on this fact.) The Republic once again joins in a front to bring the planet back under its rule. With Obi-Wan and Sassee Tiin tasked with taking back a separate section of the planet, Anakin along with the 501st(including: Rex, Fives, Jesse, Hardcase, Kix, and newcomers Dogma and Tup) are tasked with retaking the city’s capital. However, after a violent first assault Anakin is called back for mysterious reasons leaving the atypical General Krell involved.

If anything has to be said about “Darkness on Umbara” is that it is brutal. For the first time, the clones find themselves faced with an enemy with a human face, and things get decidedly nasty. The battles are visceral and intense, and for the first time since season 1’s “Trespass” there is a general sense of loss. There are numerous wince inducing scenes, as the men of the 501st meet horrible ends. Including several well-known clones to the mix adds a level of suspense that is often absent from the series, and after the dust clears from every round of artillery you find yourself looking to see if one of the big players has fallen. Like such war films Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers the sound blaster fire not only echoes a coming battle but a feeling of dread and worry.

Also worthy of mention is the inclusion of General Krell. Although his initial appearance reminds one too much of the hardass military commander, the atypical Besalisk Jedi only grows more intriguing as the episode draw along. If anything, Krell is an enigma. His character stands as so fundamentally different from almost every Jedi we have seen in the series so far, and his ultimate purpose soon becomes an important point of interest.

Dee Bradley Baker once again steals with his performance of the clones. The subtle alterations of his voice for the majority of the cast here is impressive, and essential for the success of this episode.

The animation is once again beautiful. The initial shots of the Republics ships shooting through the mist covered atmosphere of Umbara are suitably mystifying, and add that in the brutal battle scenes that follow and you have a visual stunner of an episode.

Perhaps where “Darkness on Umbara” is most interesting is that there is still so much to go. This episode more than delivered, but we still have three more installments on this shadowy world, and the ultimate destination is unclear. Who makes it off Umbara alive? Who is General Krell? What made this arc so disturbing that Dee Bradley Baker didn’t want to voice it? What will next week’s superstar director Walter Murch bring to the table? It’s intriguing, and more than a bit exciting.

Score: A
Friday, October 14, 2011

This week continued to tell the stories of everyone's favorite robotic duo as they traversed throughout the galaxy. Featuring numerous small stories and locations, "Nomad Droids" is, for better or for worse, one of the more unique episodes of the series.

Following the events seen in "Mercy Mission", C-3P0 and R2-D2 are stationed with Adi Gallia aboard her star cruiser before they are ambushed by General Grievous. Chaos breaks out, and soon 3P0 and R2 find themselves catapulted through numerous locales and facing strange dangers as they take a galaxy hopping journey to find their way home.

"Nomad Droids" quite essentially is a kitchen sink episode. The writers literally wasted no expense in throwing everything they possibly could into this story. One could seriously imagine nearly a dozen different scenarios for how the writing process for this episode went, and several involve a dart board. Somethings stick, and something's don't. Its hardly ever boring, but its not always good either.

3P0 and R2 are shot through locale and situation at break neck speed, and we are introduced to new ideas and characters just as quickly. One minute, we are being treated to The Clone Wars's rendition of Jonathon Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The next, we meet a group of redneck aliens, who worship a Wizard of Oz knock off. Its all very bizarre, and interjected throughout are attempts social satire, genuinely funny slapstick, interesting action scenes, and bizarre aliens. Its certainly a one of a kind episode.

The short mini-episodes themselves are really hit or miss. The first attempt at imitating Swift feels the most forced, especially when 3P0 quite literally pulls a Gulliver and attempts to educate the tiny aliens about correct government. None of the rest are really perfect, but they all have a level of fun to them.

What honestly work best are the episode bookends which showcase the droid duo on the frontlines of the war in sequences not too far removed from A New Hope. These feel the most naturally, and in a way showcase the two's interplay better than having them play god or the Tin Man. It also doesn't hurt that these sequences are expertly animated and lit, making an excellent opener and closer to an otherwise mediocre episode.

The animation in general continues to impress, but the sound work in this episode in particular is a standout. Particularly in the space battles and the numerous droids the team meet, "Nomad Droids" is an aural treat of an episode.

It may be unbalanced and bizarre, but "Nomad Droids" is a fun episode of The Clone Wars. While not on par with last week's "Mercy Mission", it once again utilizes its droid protagonists to their potential.

Score: -B
Saturday, October 8, 2011

One thing Star Wars has always prided itself on delivering is a classic, and sometimes very light hearted, sense of adventure. That is what this week's R2 and C3P0 centric episode "Mercy Mission" attempted to deliver. This in and of itself sounds like it could be the set up for a fun half hour of television, but last year's catastrophe of an episode "Evil Plans" has made many fans (myself included) a bit apprehensive about "Mercy Mission" and next week's follow up "Nomad Droids".

The planet of Aleen has been hit with a massive earthquake. With its population and ecosystem in turmoil, Aleen has contacted a nearby Republic cruiser, containing fan favorite Commander Wolffe and the famous droid duo, to supply relief. However, what seems to be a routine supply drop soon develops into a twisting adventure through the planet's underground.

While lacking in action or serious drama, "Mercy Mission" is perhaps one of the most delightfully light hearted episodes of The Clone Wars to date. As opposed to previous side character episodes such as "Evil Plans" and "Shadow Warrior", "Mercy Mission" knows how to keep its tone consistent and to create a fun adventure without devolving to insulting humor/slapstick. There are moments of humor interspersed throughout the plot but they contain a certain genuine touch. C-3P0 and R2D2 bicker like an old married couple, and to be honest it's fun. The two droids have always had this interplay, and when the writers of Clone Wars find new ways of creating that humor without losing its base it's always fun.

Even the diminutive tribal species, the Aleena, for the most escape the typical "Ewok" trap. (In a great moment of meta humor, a clone even acknowledges the fan's worries for the introduction of the goofy little reptiles.) Although undeniably played for the cute factor, the Aleena don't overstay their welcome.

An easy standout in "Mercy Mission" is the portrayal of clone commander Wolffe. Although Wolffe has appeared in numerous episodes of the show in the past, this is the first time he has been featured as one of the primary characters to the plot. Surrounded by the bickering droid "couple" and the endless cute factor of the Aleena, Wolffe is a solid rock that grounds the episode in reality. Dee Bradley Baker's voice acting helps to carry the character's curmudgeonly depiction a long way.]

Visually, "Mercy Mission" contains numerous standout set pieces. The initial shots of the Republic entering the planet's atmosphere are absolutely stunning. The scenery and creature design shine in particular when visiting the planet's subterranean world. Particularly fascinating are a group of tree like creatures that the two droid's encounter briefly in their voyage. The only aspect that truly falls flat is the bizarre fairylike character of Orphe. In addition to her off putting design, her writing and voice work simply don't seem to mesh with the rest of the episode not to mention the Star Wars universe in general.

Although its lacking in action and features one incredibly off putting character, there is little denying the heart and fun that "Mercy Mission" possess.

Score: B
Saturday, October 1, 2011

Gungans. Why'd it have to be Gungans? There are few less respected additions to the Star Wars universe than the bumbling pseudo-racial stereotypes from Naboo. That being said the gungans weren't all that was wrong with this week's episode of The Clone Wars. While possessing some interesting moments, and the welcome appearance of two the series's villains, "Shadow Warrior" ranks as one episodes of the series we have seen since last year's "Pursuit of Peace".

Turmoil has broken out on Naboo. The Gungan army under the sway of the Separatists has declared war on the surface dwelling population. As Jar Jar, Padme, and Anakin attempt to create peace between the two races, the leader of the Gungan people is injured. With the forces of General Grievous approaching, Jar Jar must take on a role of leadership and prevent war.

There are many things wrong with "Shadow Warrior", and believe it or not most of them exist outside of Jar Jar and his aquatic foes. While their slurred speech and antics still may seem rediculous and offensive to some viewers, the Gungans, including Jar Jar himself, have simmered down considerably since their first appearance into the Phantom Menace. Here we are given an interesting view into their world, and surprisingly it isn't all that bad.

The reason why "Shadow Warrior" really doesn't work is how disjointed the episode feels. There are really two or three plots competing for screentime here, and at times it feels as if it were really three episodes crammed into one, which to be honest may have been for the best.

Although not the best episode of the series, the first half of "Shadow Warrior" wasn't anything unacceptable. We were being treated to a story of Gungan intrigue with some actually moderatley amusing Jar Jar antics. The Clone Wars is allowed to take breaks from its grimmer more violent stories on occasion for more fun storylines, but the condition is that they must be executed well. We get that for about twelve minutes, but then "Shadow Warrior" explodes into something must bigger faster than it can control.

This shift in scope begins when General Grievous faces off against an army of Gungans. Although the scene itself was decently executed (and featured the death of recognizeable character as well), the outcome catapults the episode into a completely separate plotline that proceeds to dominate the final ten minutes. The story itself isn't horrible, but it feels so separate from what we have seen before that the transition is jarring and awkward. Its even stranger that at episode's end, the writers proceed to tell us that the episode really was about Jar Jar the whole time even though he truly had nothing to do with the conclusion.

There is one scene however within these final minutes that is truly noteworthy and that is the brief confrontation between Anakin and Count Dooku. Brilliantly choreographed and smoothly animated, this brief two minute scene is truly the highlight of "Shadow Warrior".

Perhaps even more disappointing in "Shadow Warrior" is the jarring drop in animation quality. Despite advances in water technology, The Clone Wars crew seems to still be having difficulty with creating digital grass. That being said the crew should have known better than to place half the episode on the plane's of Naboo. In certain scenes where the lighting is particularly dark, the scenery truly looks like it escaped from a Gamecube game.

All in all, "Shadow Warrior" is frustratingly poor episode in both plotting and animation. Despite an above average start and a great hero-villain confrontation, at its best it merely reaches levels of mediocrity.

Score: C